This article was published by Alex DeSantis and Pooja Di Giovanna from the Davenport Institute. Connect with them on LinkedIn or Twitter.
The United States federal government recently approved the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act providing $89.9 billion toward public transit, making it the largest federal investment of this kind in American history. As cities around the country anticipate this influx of funding, they are starting to assess the best possible ways this investment can serve the community.
Transportation infrastructure is crucial for any city to establish a thriving social, cultural, and economic scene. Today, there is great demand for public transit opportunities and many cities are wondering how to determine the right policy for their residents. This creates an opportunity for local government leaders to engage their constituents with transparency.
At the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, the C40 Cities—composed of mayors, union leaders, transportation leaders, and civil society organizations—united to call on national governments around the world to increase investment in public transit infrastructure. The group argues that such investment is necessary to combat the effects of accelerating climate change, adding to the conclusions from the Paris Climate Accord in 2016.
A report from the C40 Cities found that 61 percent of residents would be more willing to support their local government if more was being done to support public transportation. Notably, 71 percent want their local government—as opposed to the state or national government—to plan public transport. Improving public transportation is essential in commuter cities, as residents often rely on transit systems to get to work.
Some agencies are taking an initiative to make it a priority to learn the needs of the community and use their findings to inform future infrastructure developments in response to community needs. In King County, the Metro Transit Department will be employing a unique public engagement tool to connect with the community. The department is setting up a public, online dashboard that features the department’s goals, current projects, data related to transit, and a place for community feedback. This dashboard will also feature information and projects on the King County-Cities Climate Collaboration.
This commitment to public engagement helps ensure that King County is transparent, accountable, and aligned with the region’s goals for public transportation. A key part of the regional plan is improving public transportation accessibility for low and middle-income earners. Doing so effectively will advance the economic and environmental goals of King County and the broader region, while maintaining focus on the needs of residents.
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly had an effect on ridership and usage of public transit services, rendering it difficult for cities to best assess community needs in an unpredictable time. According to the same C40 Cities report, public transit is expected to rebound to the normal ridership levels that existed pre-pandemic, meaning that the decline in public transit usage is only a temporary disruption.
As cities anticipate this recovery, it is important for local government leaders to remember that the community is at the heart of everything they do. Policy begins with people, and King County is demonstrating how to ensure transit changes are designed with the community in mind.
However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for cities as they look to make proper use of this federal investment in infrastructure. Each city needs to determine what is best for its respective community and in order to do that, city leaders need to engage with residents. Public engagement will also look different based on the community landscape, levels of digital access, previous engagement processes between the community and the transit department, and changes in commuting patterns.
Whatever the particular solution may be, many residents are eager to see their local government support and invest in public transit. Local governments, in turn, are uniquely positioned to handle the planning and implementation of public transit projects to meet community needs. One can’t help but think of the phrase, think globally, act locally.